Head of LWF Department of Theology, Mission and Justice Reflects on Career in International Development
(LWI) – Growing up on a farm in rural southern Sweden seems a far cry from the high-flying career in international development and mission Eva Christina Nilsson has pursued for nearly four decades. The youngest of five children, she was raised in a small village with only four farms and a Free Church prayer house, although the family went to a nearby village Lutheran church on Sundays.
Both parents were deeply involved in local politics and civil society, with her father having been elected mayor of the surrounding region. Nilsson remembers the excitement when a Member of Parliament or a local dignitary came to visit us: “It was as if the King was coming to our house! she laughs.
Eva Christina Nilsson, 19, in her native Sweden. Photo: Private
Another exciting and formative experience of those early years was the presence of missionaries who sometimes returned to his home region, bringing with them a representative from their mission station in India or southern Africa. “What I really learned in those days was that the world is so much bigger than my little village,” says Nilsson, who now serves as director of the Lutheran World Federation’s Department of Theology, Mission and Justice. (FLM).
From her office in Geneva headquarters, she oversees the work of the department that supports LWF member churches in ninety-nine countries on all continents. Prior to that, she spent many years working on policy and development strategies, as well as strengthening ecumenical collaboration, for the Church of Sweden and became the first woman to lead the Swedish Missionary Council in 2007. She has also served as an advisor to the Mission Commission. of the World Council of Churches.
Eva Christina Nilsson when she was head of the Swedish Missionary Council. Photo: CMS
Nilsson’s very first experience with the Church outside his native country came in the summer of 1983 when, as a member of the national Church of Sweden youth movement, he was offered a place for a LWF study tour. A student of history and political science at Uppsala University, she wanted to travel to Africa, Asia or Latin America and was disappointed to discover that she had been offered a trip to Eastern Europe instead. “But this visit changed the course of my life and turned out to be a conversion experience, because I met young people ready to pay the price to stay in their church and to remain faithful to their faith”, says- she.
Returning from that trip, young Nilsson wanted to learn more about the church in Eastern Europe, so she got a scholarship to study in East Germany. The conversations she and other western students had during this time have shaped her professional life ever since, she notes. “A young Estonian friend commented on how hard life must be for a Christian in the United States, which ‘turned all my preconceived ideas upside down,’ she recalls. “I realized then the importance of to challenge and challenge one’s own perceptions, to put oneself in another’s shoes and ask different questions.”
Nilsson retained strong friendships from those formative years in Eastern Europe. Decades later, at a birthday party with friends in Berlin, she was deeply moved when they expressed their gratitude for her concern for their struggles as Christians “locked in the Soviet system.” Another key moment came after the Budapest Assembly, which she attended as an LWF steward and experienced the strong Lutheran identity of a minority church on display at that 1984 gathering. “It was so different from my own upbringing that I couldn’t identify with it,” she says. Yet the words of a young East German man, “so grateful for this unique opportunity to broaden his horizons, touched my heart and helped me understand the meaning of a truly global Lutheran church,” adds- she.
Advocacy and Ecumenical Engagement
In the early 1990s, after the fall of the communist regimes, Nilsson worked to forge relationships and develop “concrete cooperation” between the Church of Sweden and the newly liberated churches in Eastern Europe. Later, she served as Vice-President of Concord Europe, a confederation of nearly two thousand relief and development non-governmental organizations across the continent. It was an important learning experience, she recalls, both in terms of advocacy with government ministers and in terms of ecumenical engagement.
Despite the successes, Nilsson admits, there have been many challenges and frustrations along the way, including as a laywoman in key decision-making positions within her church. She jokes, “I used to say when I was young that I had three things against me: my gender, my height (she’s 154cm tall) and my age” (At 64, she admits it’s no longer a problem in the same way). But throughout her career, she continues, “I have been blessed by mothers and ancestors who have trusted and supported me. These are important examples that I have tried to follow. Her advice to young women embarking on a career in the church is to “believe in yourself, trust your gifts, and seek out those who are willing to share with you.”
Eva Christina Nilsson in the chapel of the Ecumenical Center of Geneva. Photo: LWF/S. Gallay
Nilsson does not consider herself a feminist pioneer, but she stresses the urgency of working to dismantle unjust power structures in the church. “Equality is so important,” she insists, “and a church worth its salt should value the gifts of women and men, otherwise it’s not true to the gospel.” I don’t want to be a symbolic woman and often others have been more in the forefront than me, but I don’t believe in escaping responsibility, even if it sometimes forced me to find myself on the barricades.
Despite her wealth of experience, her current position at the LWF has proven to be uniquely and unexpectedly challenging. She was hired to oversee the rollout of a restructured department, bringing together theology and mission support of churches with a new “Action for Justice” advocacy center, starting in January 2020. Less than three months later , COVID-19 hit and closures began, throwing churches around the world into crisis. Nilsson is deeply grateful to his colleagues who worked tirelessly from home to ensure the new structure was up and running, despite all the difficulties they faced.
Eva Christina Nilsson, speaking at a council meeting as head of the LWF Department of Theology, Mission and Justice. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert
“Our role as a department,” she explains, “is to deepen theological reflection and support the work of member churches, helping them find new ways to work together. Highlighting the theological basis of our advocacy and diaconal work is vital, so we work to create synergies between these different areas. We also represent our member churches in UN processes, such as the Commission on the Status of Women or the Universal Periodic Reviews. And we can even challenge and encourage churches to consider new perspectives as they strive to stay true to the gospel in their very different contexts.
Nilsson ends his role with the LWF later this year and is reflecting with Church of Sweden leaders on next steps. Family life has remained central throughout her career and that of her husband, a Church of Sweden pastor who shared custody of their four children and provided hospitality to the many international colleagues Nilsson hosted. at their home. She has always enjoyed her work with young people, starting with her time in the national youth movement when she visited schools to talk about the work of the church. A book is another option, to follow up on a first volume she wrote about her experiences in East Germany. “How can I still use these experiences, whether on a global, national or very local level”, she wonders. “The key, for me, is to do something meaningful and to have a relationship with young people in one way or another: I just have to understand what it is,” she concludes.